Hundreds of millions of adults have experienced a traumatic event at some point. Even if the physical impacts have healed and the memories have faded, the effect of these events can linger for years or decades.
Therapy is a popular choice for those struggling to heal their past trauma, but what happens when you can’t articulate the things that have happened to you to start that healing process? Art therapy may be a solution. What is art therapy and how can mental health professionals use it to help heal past trauma?
The dictionary defines trauma as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience,” but that is a very minor definition for something that profoundly impacts a large portion of the population. According to the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, roughly 70% of adults in the United States have experienced a traumatic event at least once. That’s more than 223 million people in the U.S. alone.
Trauma responses vary dramatically from person to person. Some can go through their entire lives without encountering their triggers or experiencing adverse effects from their trauma. Others may find their experiences completely debilitating and require additional support to function in their daily lives.
Ways Trauma Changes the Brain and Body
Experiencing traumatic events has a dramatic effect on both the brain and body. The amygdala serves as the danger recognition center, warning you when you’re about to put your hand on a hot stove or step into traffic. When you experience a traumatic event, the parts of the brain responsible for language — both speaking and understanding — shut down, allowing the amygdala to take over. This part of the brain records visual and tactile memories of the traumatic event.
That’s a fancy scientific way to say humans store traumatic memories in their brains and bodies. The body’s stress can help create a healthy adaptive response if you encounter something stressful. In trauma cases, the healthy adaptive response gets overwhelmed, leaving you disconnected from your bodies. Trauma and traumatic memories can also manifest physically in things like chronic illness, sleep issues, headaches or frequent chest pain that has no other underlying cause.
For some patients — especially those trying to heal from trauma experienced in childhood — the body holds on to the experiences even if they’ve repressed the memories and no longer remember precisely what happened. This doesn’t mean the memories or their impacts are gone, but they are so deeply hidden that they are challenging to uncover even with therapy. This is where art therapy can help.
What Is Art Therapy?
Helping people deal with their traumatic experiences comes in many forms, including medication, cognitive behavioral therapy and other traditional treatments. There are also many less standard methods emerging that offer different benefits. Art therapy is one of those alternative options.
Experts define art therapy as “a form of psychotherapy involving the encouragement of free self-expression through painting, drawing or modeling, used as a remedial activity or to aid in a diagnosis.” Art therapy encourages patients to process their emotions and experiences through various artistic mediums. It isn’t limited to painting or sculpting. Art therapy can include anything from drawing to interpretive dance and everything in between.
Mental health professionals use art therapy to help patients understand their feelings and experiences. These forms of self-expression can help heal trauma and other mental health diagnoses like anxiety and depression.
How It Can Help Patients
A 2014 study found that humans’ tactile senses are tied to the brain’s fear center and traumatic experiences can leave individuals disconnected from feeling. This occurrence can make it challenging to deal with those traumatic experiences because it’s difficult or impossible to articulate what they’ve been through in a way that could lead to healing. Art therapy allows patients to convey their feelings and emotions without needing words.
“Some adults who have endured sexual abuse and traumatic situations during their childhood have repressed their memories for so long that they do not recall what occurred,” said Leela R. Magavi, MD. She serves as the regional medical director for Mindpath Health. “Art therapy allows them to piece together lost memories and heal, so they can achieve their goals and trust once again in relationships.”
Therapists can assist the healing process by discussing the artwork patients have created, helping them to put their experiences into words. It allows the patients to develop a narrative that keeps them from reliving the memories. Art therapy teaches the brain the traumatic event is no longer happening, allowing the patient to view it as an autobiographical memory instead of something that will continue to activate the brain’s fear center.
Using Art Therapy for Aiding Trauma Recovery
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to helping people learn to heal from the traumatic things they’ve experienced. Some may respond well to traditional or cognitive behavioral therapy, while others may need a more flexible treatment plan to help them overcome their pain and heal.
Art therapy is one of many options that could help patients recover from their past trauma. Slinging paint on a canvas might not seem scientific, but the resulting catharsis could be the first step toward a happier and healthier future.